Western Conference Spotlights: Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Howard and Harden

We’re only four nights into the NBA playoffs. It’s way too early to draw any definitive conclusions. Five of the first eight playoff games were won by road teams, the most in NBA history. Home court advantage has been stolen away like a package of Slim Jim’s from a 7-Eleven. One noticeable early trend is the importance of mental toughness when the games get defensive, as they do in the playoffs. Overly aggressive stars are hurting their teams. One game is the smallest of sample sizes, but if you’re thinking about how NBA greatness is defined, one trait is the ability to make smart decisions while under intense pressure. Mental toughness is about controlled and decisive aggression, rather than constant assertiveness. Coaches talking about “playing with force” and energy, but an inability to adjust to each scenario will become a liability in the playoffs. Here are players that made less-than-smart decisions early on.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Fouls often cause Blake Griffin great frustration.

Fouls often cause Blake Griffin great frustration.

One of the most physically dominant forwards in the league, Blake Griffin’s attacking offensive style is nearly unstoppable now that he’s developed a decent fifteen-foot jumper. The Clippers are facing Golden State in Round One. The Warriors lost defensive anchor Andrew Bogut to a fractured rib in the third-to-last regular season game. Bogut is one of the premier rim-protectors in the league. Without Bogut, the Clippers will penetrate at will. Bogut’s absence provides center Jermaine O’Neal more playing time. Griffin was coaxed into two early fouls by the ageless O’Neal early in the first quarter of Game 1. A shrewd player would have been extra careful after drawing two early whistles. Forty seconds after re-entering the game at the beginning of the second quarter, Blake was hit with an offensive foul on a drive to the basket. Third foul. Back to the bench. Third quarter begins. Griffin plays well, scoring at will and getting the offense rolling. Golden State gets into a scoring rhythm and the game stays close. With just under three minutes left, Griffin gets hit with his fourth foul, taking the David Lee bait on an up-fake. Griffin now has four fouls. There is no way he should allow himself to get called for a 5th before the end of the third quarter. Instead, he attempts to take a charge on Lee, and finds himself back on the bench, with only one foul left. Coach Doc Rivers is forced to keep Griffin on the bench until five minutes remain in the game. Griffin ends up fouling out with 48 seconds remaining. Griffin plays a total of 19 minutes in Game 1.

Two nights later, Griffin went out and torched the Warriors in Game 2, scoring 35 points on only 17 shots. Game 1 may end up being Griffin’s worst playoff game of this potentially long Clippers playoff run. On the other hand, he has repeatedly shown he can implode if his aggressiveness is exploited on the defensive end. The Clippers have too much firepower for a depleted Warriors team that will increasingly miss Bogut as the series progresses. Griffin’s ability to adapt to whistles and match-ups will be tested throughout the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

An example of Westbrook unleashing his trademark scream.

An example of Westbrook unleashing his trademark scream.

Russell Westbrook is probably criticized more often than he deserves. One of the fastest players in the league, with or without the ball, Westbrook can transform a game with a ten-point burst of steals, open-court dunks, and buzzer-beating pull-up jumpers. Westbrook oozes confidence in the same way Kobe and Wade do. On the other hand, he can shoot the Thunder out of close games in a hurry.

Oklahoma City is embroiled in vicious first-round match-up with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite coming in as the 7th seed in the West, Memphis went 40-19 with center Marc Gasol, and advanced to last year’s Western Conference Finals. Suffice it to say Memphis is a difficult test. They are as fierce and cohesive a defensive unit as exists in the NBA. Tony Allen, Memphis’ maniacally physical and amazingly instinctive perimeter defender, can limit the unstoppable Kevin Durant simply by denying him the ball as well as anyone. Memphis refuses to turn the ball over (6 in Game 1, 9 in Game 2), which keeps OKC in the half-court. In those situations, when Durant is blanketed by Allen, Westbrook has to make decisions. As impressive as Westbrook was at times throughout Game 2 (29 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds), his shot selection in the fourth quarter and overtime was questionable. After a 1 for 4 third quarter, Westbrook shot 4 for 11 in the fourth, as the Grizzlies vaunted defense went on amber alert, as they faced a 2-0 series deficit. In those brutal stretches, nobody scores on the Grizzlies, so maybe focusing on Westbrook’s 5 of 15 second half is nit-picking. On the other hand, Kevin Durant’s first fourth quarter basket came with only 3:34 remaining. Is it Scott Brooks’ fault, for not figuring out a way for Durant to free himself from Allen’s grasp? Is it Westbrook’s over-dribbling? Whatever the case, the Thunder can’t rely on Westbrook only as a shot-clock-buzzer-beating threat every time down. Credit the stifling defense of Memphis for swarming Durant and forcing Westbrook to take the shots. Look toward Westbrook when Spurs-level ball-movement is the only clear way to bend the Memphis defense and create a somewhat open look. Over-dribbling might mean a premature playoff exit for OKC once again.

Dwight Howard and James Harden, Houston Rockets

In Game One of the Rockets-Blazers series, a furiously contested fourth quarter and overtime resulted in the Portland Trail Blazers outlasting the frustrated Rockets in Houston. Dwight Howard and James Harden, the team’s two superstars, could not save Houston from LaMarcus Aldridge’s avalanche of points (46) and rebounds (18).  Instead, Howard’s insistence on posting-up and his inability to connect on free-throws (quite costly in Dwight’s case) ground Houston’s offense to a halt. Coach Kevin McHale faces a quandary: he has a team that thrives in the open court and playing a helter-skelter style of offense, yet he should have a match-up advantage if he can force the Blazers to double-team Howard in the post. Instead, Robin Lopez defended Howard one-on-one, and Howard only managed 27 points on 21 field goal attempts and 17 free-throws. McHale would have been wise to send Howard to the bench when Portland employed their “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy. The Rockets led by 10 with 5:43 remaining in the game. After missing two, Howard connected on the subsequent pair, before he clanged four more. Howard standing at the foul line halted any momentum the Rockets had and the Blazers erased the deficit.

Meanwhile, James Harden’s impact on the game lessened as the contest progressed. Harden’s inefficient offensive performance (8 of 28 from the field and only 3 of 14 from deep), kept Houston from stretching their lead in the second half. The Howard-Harden combo have the potential to dominate any playoff game, but without transition opportunities, Houston, like Oklahoma City, becomes isolation-heavy. They rely on Harden getting to the free-throw line and Howard scoring down-low (without the free-throw line). The Blazers, like Memphis, limited their turnovers (only 12), with LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 46 points on 31 attempts, while turning the ball over only three times.

***

The Clippers, Thunder and Rockets all may advance past the opening round of this year’s playoffs, but their weaknesses have been exploited already, lessening their hopes of defeating the nearly flawless Spurs in the coming weeks.

 

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2014 Playoff Ramblings, Game 1, Volume One

Lots of noises. Over the course of each first round series, we’ll get more signals. Yes, there are issues with plus-minus numbers, but they can tell a story over the course of six or seven games. After one game, here are a few notable plus-minus numbers, plus a big old bag of observations from each Game 1.

Brooklyn-Toronto (Dinosaurs vs. Raptors)

Kevin Garnett: +10 (20 min)

Andray Blatche: -16 (16 min)

Greivis Vasquez (18 pts, 8 ast, 4 reb): +8 (29 min)

Paul Pierce’s 4th quarter mini-heroics (9 points, classic slow-motion drives) were lovely. Amir Johnson looks like he’s playing while injured, which makes the Nets rebounding issues slightly less important. DeMar DeRozan’s first half was nonexistent. After all of those years watching Pierce and Garnett as a Celtic, it’s hard to believe, but I genuinely want them to advance as Nets. I suppose I can’t ignore my love for both guys. Go Nets.

 

Golden State-LA Clippers (Dubs vs. Lob City)

Draymond Green: +17 (22 min)

Jamal Crawford (2 of 11 from field, 1 of 5 from deep): -15 (22 min)

Blake Griffin played fewer minutes than Draymond Green (22 to 19). Chris Paul received zero help due to the impressive Warriors defense, led by Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Warriors defense blanketed the perimeter. The great ball movement that Griffin helped provide the Clippers through much of the second half of the regular season was absent to his presence on the bench. Game Two should be intriguing. 

 

Atlanta-Indiana (Overlooked vs. Over-with?)

DeMarre Carroll: +15 (39 min to lead Hawks)

Luis Scola: -12 (19 min)

Wow. I guess I shouldn’t be so stunned, but I am. I remain steadfast in the belief that the Pacers will not lose this series, but they are doing their best to convince everyone that they can. Still a bit surprised Larry Bird went public with his criticisms of Frank Vogel. That didn’t help. Roy Hibbert needs to inspire this group and get over himself. Man, they could use Danny Granger’s outside shooting right about now.

 

Memphis-OKC (Grit and Grind vs. Loud City)

Mike Miller: -21 (20 min)

Caron Butler: +18 (31 min)

Derek Fisher: +15 (12 min)

side note: Grizzlies shot 18 of 31 (58%) from the line, Randolph 7 of 12. For Memphis to have a chance this has to improve. Oklahoma City jumped out early. Memphis crawled their way back into the game. Durant took the Thunder home. Caron Butler was a sneaky good signing, and may make the difference in a few games during this Thunder run.

 

Portland-Houston (Rip City vs. Hardly-any-D)

Many will mention Aldridge’s heroic effort because of the 46 points and 18 rebounds. How about the importance of taking decent shots without turning the ball over? How about doing that against a team that loves to push the pace and get easy buckets in transition? How about 46 points on 31 shots (efficient because of the 13 free-throw attempts) and only 3 turnovers. Aldridge was a force all night. A stabilizing force that derails Houston’s attempts to get out in the open floor. The Blazers couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Still, they gave up 106 points in regulation and 120 including overtime. Houston’s offense is that good. Dwight Howard is a match-up nightmare for Robin Lopez, but Lopez fought hard all night. This series will feature numerous nail-biters. The Blazers played their best players major minutes (42 or more for the starters except for Lopez, who fouled out) as expected. Terry Stotts’ strategy to wear Harden down worked beautifully. James Harden shoots 8 of 28 and 3 of 14 from distance. Wesley Mathews forced James Harden to work all night on the defensive end, which contributed to that woeful shooting. The Blazers play good defense among those starting five and they refuse to foul. Houston didn’t get to the line in the first half. If the Blazers can continue to take care of each possession, they will give themselves a chance to win each game. Howard will play better as the season progresses

The questions: Can Kevin McHale regroup and figure out a way to keep Harden fresher and will McHale take Howard out if Hack-a-Dwight continues to trip up the Rockets offense?

 

San Antonio-Dallas (Old Masters and Kawhi vs. Old Master and Okays)

Talk about a strange game. The Spurs played impeccable defense in the 1st and 4th quarters, holding Dallas to 12 in the opening period, and holding the Mavs without a field goal for the final 7 minutes and 45 seconds of the game. I’m not counting a meaningless lay-up by Devin Harris as time expired. The Spurs are the steamroller of the NBA. The Mavs folded like a…(House of Cards? Tent? Lying kindergartner?). Wow.

Amazingly, Dallas kept their turnovers way down, committing only 8. On the flipside, they shot only 13 free-throws and had only 15 assists. Long, contested mid-range jumpers. Despite shooting 3 of 17 from deep, the Spurs survived. For all of the Patty Mills regular season love, he was invisible in this game (0 for 3 from deep, 0 assists, o steals in 14 minutes, minus-15).

 

Chicago-Washington (Slow and Ugly vs. Nene’s Knees)

Who deserves more love: Nene or Professor Miller? Both were crucial to the Wizards win over the Bulls in Game 1. Coach Randy Wittman was forced to leave the ageless Andre Miller in the game deep into the fourth quarter, because he was running the offense with more precision and effectiveness than the fantastically athletic John Wall. Wall sat on the bench and looked somewhat saddened by Miller’s savvy on the court. Nene was huge for Washington, hitting 11 of 17 from the field, and keeping the Bulls rebounding in check.

D.J. Augustin, who has received heaping buckets of praise over the past few months, came crashing back to earth with a 3 of 15 shooting performance, though he did make all 10 of his free-throws. Chicago’s 5 of 20 shooting from distance kept their offense from clicking. Credit the Wizards’ swarming defense. This series will likely go the distance.

 

Miami-Charlotte (Dwayne’s Knees vs. Al’s Ankles)

Not much to say here. Al Jefferson’s great first quarter was all Charlotte could muster offensively. Jefferson limped to the sideline early in the second quarter, seemingly bothered by an ankle injury, and wasn’t the same afterward. Without a dominant Big Al, Charlotte can’t score at all.

 

 

 

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2014 NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Preview, With a Dose of NBA History

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)

History

In an interesting twist, the Spurs franchise started in Dallas, as the Chaparalls, with the ABA in 1967. In 1973, they moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs. With the 1976 merger, the Spurs entered the NBA. Twenty division titles in thirty-eight NBA seasons showcases the Spurs consistency. George Gervin, Kevin Durant’s predecessor, was one of the premier scorers of the late 1970’s. The Spurs were thrown into the Eastern Conference with the merger, and it wasn’t until 1980 that San Antonio and Houston moved to the Western Conference. As we consider the imbalance of the two conferences since 2000, imagine an Eastern Conference that always included the Spurs.

The mid-1980’s were the only dry years down near the Alamo. David Robinson brought San Antonio back to life and the Spurs were back, going from a 21-win team to a 56-win club in 1989-90. Robinson and Sean Elliott led those Spurs teams throughout the 1990’s until an injury-riddled 1996-97 year resulted in then-GM Gregg Popovich taking over as coach early on in a season that ended with 20 wins, five more than the tanking Boston Celtics.

One ping-pong ball bounce later, the Spurs were gift-wrapped Tim Duncan as the unanimous number one overall choice in the 1997 draft. The Spurs have remained in the upper echelon of the West ever since, winning several championships, starting in 1999, and continuing on in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In last year’s finals, they came within one shot of winning yet another. Ahead of the curve in regard to international scouting, the Spurs swiped Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. Their even-keeled triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have been through it all. As ever, they are led by the ageless and amiable Gregg Popovich.  They now have the rising Kawhi Leonard to help lead them in the future. Former Spurs assistant coaches now dot the NBA coaching landscape. Other franchises try and emulate the Spurs.

The Dallas Mavericks, like many of my friends, myself and my wife, were born in 1980. The NBA continued to expand westward and southward, and the Mavericks gave Texas a third team. From the very beginning, the Mavs played an up-tempo style, pushing the pace under Dick Motta, the precursor to coach’s Paul Westphal and George Karl. In the franchise’s fourth season, the young Mavs were led by Rolando Blackmon and Mark Aguirre. Detlef Schrempf was drafted 8th overall in the 1985 draft and the Mavericks now had the balance they’d needed. The mid-to-late 1980’s brought 50-win seasons.

In 1988, with the help of phenom center Roy Tarpley, who earned the Sixth Man of the Year award, the Mavs came within one game of winning the Western Conference, before dropping Game 7 to the Lakers. Injuries took the Mavs down soon after. Fat Lever’s knee. Roy Tarpley’s struggles with substance abuse and then a knee injury, short-circuited his career. The Mavericks were a lackluster team for most of the 1990’s, winning only 13 games in 1993-94. Don Nelson welcomed the arrival of Dirk Nowitzki in 2000, and the Mavericks became relevant again immediately. The 2001-02, Nelson and Nowitzki propelled the Mavericks into becoming the top offense in the NBA. The Mavs won 57 games, but folded in five games to the Sacramento Kings, led by the passing trio of Webber-Divac-Stojakovic. The next year, Dallas upped the total to 60 wins, and beat the Kings, before losing the Western Conference finals to the rival Spurs.

The Mavericks finally got to the Finals in 2005-06, by edging the Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the West Finals. Facing Dwayne Wade’s Heat in the Finals, the Mavericks took the first two games, before dropping a heartbreaker in Game 3, 98-96. The Mavs would go on to lose by a single point in Game 5, and the series ended in another nail-biter, a three-point loss that clinched the series for Wade, Shaq, Antoine Walker and company. This series was Wade’s pinnacle of his career. He averaged 35 ppg, while penetrating at will. Still a stunning number, Wade took 97 free-throws over the course of those six games.

Dallas followed the Finals loss with a remarkable 67-win regular season in 2006-07. Then came the Golden State Warriors and one of the more indelible playoff upsets in recent memory. The “We Believe” Warriors took out a shell-shocked Mavs team in six games. In the ensuing years, several solid seasons ended in early playoff disappointment. In 2010-11, Rick Carlisle led the Mavs to 57 wins, and the defensive stalwarts Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and an aging but effective Jason Kidd helped provide Nowitzki with the balance his teams had always lacked. The Mavs made the NBA universe happy be knocking off the newly-developed trio in Miami in six games. Dirk got his revenge on Wade, and the Mavs had their taste of glory.

Travel won’t be an issue for San Antonio and Dallas in this all Texas clash.

This Year and a Prediction

Wow. I didn’t mean to write a recent NBA history book. Now that I’ve emerged from that rabbit hole, how does this year look? The Spurs remain quietly dominant. Just going about their business by playing their entire roster, and keeping their elder statesman out of harm’s way. Not a single player averaged 30 minutes per game. Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills both took steps toward stardom. Has a team ever won 62 games more easily? The Mavs, meanwhile, were not expected to win more than 40-45 games. Instead, they came through with 49, edging out the upstart Suns, thanks to a highly effective Monta Ellis, who paired well with Nowitzki and Vince Carter. The surprising breakthrough of the long-armed Brandan Wright helped Dallas off the bench. This series will be over quickly. The Spurs won’t mess around. Determined to rest his starters, Popovich will probably threaten to leave the team if they don’t sweep Dallas.

Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 4.

 ***

 

Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)

History

The Houston Rockets came into the NBA by way of San Diego, in 1967. Four year later, they were in Houston, where Rockets belong, because that’s where NASA is. They won the West in 1981 and 1986. In both years, the Rockets lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, each in six games. The Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon were known as the twin towers, because they were both exceedingly tall. Injuries to Sampson and substance abuse issues with their guards wiped Houston from the top of the West for several years. Olajuwon brought the Rockets franchise back to relevance in the early 1990’s. In 1992-93, the Rockets won 55 games and made a dent in the playoffs, by beating the Clippers in the first round.

The next season, Houston began “launching” (oh the puns) with Vern Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Mario Elie leading their long-range offense. In the 1993 Playoffs, Houston started their run by beating Clyde Drexler and the Blazers. They ended the season by beating Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks in a memorable seven-game series. Houston repeated the following season, giving them back-to-back championships by sweeping the young Shaq-led Orlando Magic in four games. Houston had some success in the mid-to-late-1990’s, but fell to the Sonics in 1996, and to the Jazz in 1997. Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone. What a drab offense those Jazz teams ran. Houston fell into a malaise in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, too good for the lottery, yet not good enough to get out of the first round. In 2009, behind the combo of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, they matched up with the Blazers again, surviving that series before losing to the Lakers in seven games.

The James Harden era began in 2012. The Rockets landed center Dwight Howard last summer. Harden, Howard and Chandler Parsons have Rockets fans hopeful again.

Portland fans have had a remarkable run of success over the years with their franchise. Between 1976 and 2003, the Blazers missed the playoffs only once. On the other hand, the Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 18 of those 26 years. What a brutal stretch for those same fans.

The Blazers won their only championship in 1977. A 49-win regular season made Portland an underdog in the West Finals. Blazermania swept the Pacific Northwest as the Bill Walton-led crew upset Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers in four straight, before outlasting the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

1989-1992 brought more Blazer obsession, with Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey bringing 59-wins, 63-wins, and then 57-win seasons. The Super Nintendo basketball game Bulls vs. Blazers came out in 1992.

After years of steady but uninspiring 44-50 win seasons, the Blazers were again contenders in the late 1990’s. The 1999-2000 team won 59 games. The lineup was loaded, with Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Pippen, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire. That group came within one game of the NBA Finals, before collapsing in epic fashion to the Lakers. Since then, the Blazers have not won a playoff series.

The Blazers are now entering a new era, led by sharpshooting point guard Damion Lillard and the last bastion of the mid-range game, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. This year’s Blazers are easy to get behind, with the versatile Nic Batum at small forward and Wesley Mathews occasionally lighting It up from deep as well.

I interviewed my friend Michael Heald earlier in the year, about Portland and this included some Blazers history. http://darkoindex.com/2014/01/08/qa-part-one-old-friend-michael-heald-on-the-city-of-portland-and-its-blazers/

This Year and a Prediction

The Blazers were one of the best stories in basketball over the first two months of the season, starting off 24-5. Regression was coming, as the three-point shooting numbers were unsustainable, and the schedule had been exceedingly generous early on. The Blazers stumbled but regained their trajectory and finished with 54 wins. However, a 13-10 record in their final 23 games isn’t inspiring a ton of confidence. Like Golden State and Dallas, the Blazers feasted on sub-.500 opponents, going 33-6 in those matchups. On the flipside, they went 21-22 in plus-.500 match-ups. The Rockets, meanwhile, went 25-19 in those plus-.500 games. The Rockets peaked much later in the season, going 25-11 over their final 36 games. This match-up is fairly even, as most 4 vs. 5 matchups are. Both teams have weaknesses. It may come down to three-point shooting, and Dwight Howard’s ability to stay out of foul trouble.

Darko Index Predicts: Rockets in 7.

***

 

Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)

History

The Clippers have been the West Coast’s version of the Nets. Living in the shadow of their brethren. The Clippers have always been either ignored or disgraced over their history. The franchise was born in Buffalo in 1970, made its way out west to San Diego in 1978 and landed in Los Angeles in 1984. Since 1984, the Clippers have made it to the playoffs on six occasions. The Clips advanced to the second round in 2006 and in 2012. That is a teaspoon of success, if you’re measuring.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have given the Clippers their first 50-win season in franchise history. Clippers fans couldn’t be happier that this year coincides with the worst season the Lakers have ever endured.

Golden State has seen glory days throughout the decades. The franchise originated in Philadelphia, as the Philadelphia Warriors, in 1946. This team joined the NBA in 1949. The team drafted Wilt Chamberlain a decade later. You may have heard of him. He was very tall and scored 100 points in a single game. He also claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women.

Unfortunately, the NBA was in its infancy, and there was no video footage of this game, nor of all Wilt’s sexcapades. If there were clips of the basketball, most of them would look the same. Some little guy in tight shorts passes to the behemoth in the middle (Chamberlain was 7’1” in an era of much shorter NBA players than today), who then leaps and casually tosses in a four-foot finger roll or a lay-up. Not to dismiss Wilt’s greatness, but he simply towered over everyone he played against. Even Bill Russell (6’9”) was four inches shorter than Wilt.

The Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, stayed for nine years and then headed out to Oakland, renaming themselves the Golden State Warriors, in 1971. Golden State had a great run in the 1970’s, led by Rick Barry, Butch Beard and Jamaal Wilkes. Barry, who famously shot his free-throws underhand, averaged over 30 ppg in 1974-75, the year the Warriors claimed their first and only NBA championship. The Warriors, coached by Al Attles, won 48 regular season games. In an era preceding the three-pointer, Barry was one of the better shooters of the era. Other Warrior greats include Nate Thurmond, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin, and Tim Hardaway.

From 1988-1994, the Warriors briefly flirted with success. The up-tempo stylings of Coach Don Nelson led the Warriors to advancing beyond the first round in 1989 and 1991, but the “Run TMC” era ended in bittersweet fashion. If you want to stretch it to include some recent Warriors, Baron Davis was about as beloved as any Warrior for a nice stretch including 2004-2008. This year’s edition of the Warriors are the first team to get back to the 50-win plateau since 1994.

Stephen Curry brings a new level of optimism to the Bay Area faithful as the Warriors franchise moves forward.

This Year and a Prediction

The loss of Andrew Bogut seriously hampers what might have been a very evenly matched series between the Clippers and the Warriors. Bogut’s defensive expertise on the interior, combined with Andre Iguodala’s lock-down perimeter defense have elevated Golden State’s defense into a top-5 crew when healthy. Now that Bogut is sidelined with a fractured rib, the Warriors will have to go small, inserting the unheralded and versatile Draymond Green into the frontcourt. Power forward David Lee, whose offensive abilities are often overshadowed by his defensive liabilities, has been dealing with lingering shoulder issues. Young wingman Klay Thompson, already a weapon with his outside shot, has developed into a well-rounded offensive player whose defensive exploits are already well-known. The Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a litany of above-average shooters surrounding them. Defensively, DeAndre Jordan has matured and complicates the opposing penetration. I would love to say the Steph Curry can average 35 points per game, and will get just enough defense from Iguodala, Green, and Thompson to make this a very compelling series. I would love to say the Warriors shouldn’t be counted out. I would love to say Warriors in 6, but it seems like too much to ask without Bogut. Doc Rivers is a great coach. Mark Jackson is a very good motivator, but he doesn’t always make the wisest in-game adjustments.

Darko Index Predicts: Clippers in 7.

***

 

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)

History

I don’t have the mental capacity to keep researching and writing at the moment. The playoffs start tomorrow, so here’s the quick and dirty version. The Thunder were mercilessly stolen from Seattle and brought to Oklahoma City. The fans are loud in OKC, so they call themselves Loud City. I like how they stay standing until the first Thunder basket of every game. The Seattle franchise was a proud one. They originated in 1967, and lasted until they were stolen in 2008. They won a championship in 1979, won conference titles in 1978, 1979, and in 1996. The mid-1990’s Sonics were wildly entertaining. Gary Payton was wildly entertaining. Shawn Kemp was an earlier, nastier version of Blake Griffin. The Sonics were incredibly fun to watch. So fun, that they would be stolen and relocated in 2008.

Kevin Durant is the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook picked up the wildly entertaining torch from Gary Payton. With Durant and Westbrook, Serge Ibaka is determined to make some new history in Oklahoma City.

Memphis was originally in Vancouver, which is why they are called the Grizzlies. Vancouver’s brief fling with the NBA lasted from 1995-2001. Those teams never won more than 23 games. It’s a shame. Vancouver is such a beautiful city. It really deserves another chance. I’m not sure what happened there. Shareef Abdur-Rahim is about all that anyone seems to recall about the Vancouver Grizzlies. Only three years after moving to Memphis, the Grizzlies won 50 games, Safe to say Hubie Brown knew what he was doing as the coach. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies never got out of the first round of the playoffs in those early days. Since 2010, the Grizzlies have been remodeled and remain one of the toughest defensive teams in the Association. Stalwarts Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph provide the “Grit and Grind” frontcourt, but the heart and soul of Memphis remains Tony Allen, one of the nastiest perimeter defenders of the last five years in the NBA. Point guard Mike Conley has continued his upward trajectory over the last few years.

This Year and a Prediction

With Marc Gasol, Memphis went 40-19. Without Gasol, the Grizzlies were 10-13. With Russell Westbrook, the Thunder went 34-12. Without Westbrook, OKC went 25-11. What does this prove? Marc Gasol is absolutely essential to the success of the Grizzlies, while Kevin Durant can show his MVP abilities (for at least 36 games) with or without Westbrook. Memphis will not be able to stop Durant. They may be able to slow down Westbrook, who is still less than 100%. The improvement of Ibaka’s jumper and the three-point shooting of Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb will make it much tougher for Memphis’ stifling defense to continuously put them in a position to win. Zach Randolph will have to deal with Perkins and Collison down low. When Randolph is negated, the pressure on Mike Conley and Mike Miller will rise. OKC is just too deep and versatile defensively and Durant can get his own shot. Many close games, but it will be awfully tough for Memphis to upset OKC.

Darko Index Predicts: Thunder in 6. 

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